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Cardona: Schools Will Need to ‘Work Twice as Hard’ to Convince Some Families to Return This Fall

By Linda Jacobson | July 27, 2021

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Fairfax High School in Los Angeles this month to launch a volunteer mentoring and tutoring campaign. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images)

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona doesn’t expect to see more enrollment loss in public schools this fall, but said educators must “work twice as hard” to rebuild the trust of some families after a year of remote learning and reopening delays.

“I am confident that everyone wants to return back to school and that schools are doing their best to get students back in. I know in some places it wasn’t quick enough for some families,” the secretary said last week in a brief conversation with The 74. “What we have to ensure is that we’re following the guidelines to make sure that our schools are safe and that we’re engaging our students and families in ways that we haven’t in the past.”

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Cardona said he recognized the challenges districts are facing in trying to make up for lost instruction. While he’s encouraged by what he’s seen during his recent visits to summer learning programs, he added that some districts will need to work harder to strengthen connections with other organizations so students can get the “accelerated support” they need to overcome the pandemic’s impact.

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“I’ve seen examples of it already — where schools are really stepping up to give students a good opportunity to engage socially and academically,” he said. “I’m expecting with full, in-person options for students that the sense of community and the sense of family that our students and families are longing for, that they’re going to get it.”

Schools, Cardona said, also need to be specific with parents about what safety precautions they’ll be taking this fall.

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“I know some schools had major issues they had to address in terms of ventilation systems or ensuring that the environment was safe,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a health pandemic. We want to make sure that schools are safe for our students and our staff.”

And they should be clear about the opportunities they’re offering to help students make up for instruction they missed last school year, he added.

But the pandemic and learning loss aren’t the only reasons some parents have grown dissatisfied with schools over the summer. Surveys suggest some parents want to see different learning options for their children when school starts this fall. And others are outraged over how districts are addressing issues of race and equity in the classroom, with debates dominating school board meetings from coast to coast.

Reiterating what he’s told House members during recent budget hearings, the secretary said the topic has become politicized. But he sympathized with administrators facing pressure over the issue and said he wants to shift attention to the resources schools now have to make school improvements.

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Superintendents, “have shown tremendous leadership reopening schools during a pandemic,” he said. “They did their best to make sure that our students got the support that they needed. I don’t just mean a laptop and broadband access, which is in itself a challenge, but making sure our students were fed, making sure that they had the social and emotional support. We owe it to our education community to stand behind them.”

In recent weeks, the secretary has visited summer learning programs in Los Angeles, New Jersey and Oregon, and said even though some districts have struggled to find enough staff to work over the summer, he said he’s seen strong examples of schools and nonprofit organizations sharing the responsibility for summer learning.

At the virtual reopening summit Cardona held in March, he said he “jokingly” warned educators that he didn’t want to see students doing any “ditto” sheets this summer and that he hoped for engaging programs that interest students while shoring up some of the academic skills they’ve missed over the past year.

While he said he saw some students writing words on a whiteboard in a classroom in Portland, he said he was happy to report, “I have not seen any worksheets.”

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